Archive for the ‘#grammar’ Tag

Plain Vanilla   14 comments

Do you use said or asked after a ? or tag your interruptions? Any punctuation that bugs you? What’s the hardest for you to get right?

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Keeping It Brief

I trained and worked as a newspaper reporter, where “Keeping It Brief” is an overarching motto. Hence, I trained in newspaper writing, which is very different from English writing. So, the world is filled with punctuation and grammatical “necessities” that fly in the face of my training.


The Oxford comma is a waste of ink — except in the very rare instance where it defines an important shade of difference. People overused it in the past and now it’s mandatory ink wastage. I notice my local newspaper still doesn’t use it. Good for them! I got tired of my editor yelling at me about it, so I use it now, but I still think it’s a waste of ink.

“That” following a reporting verb is also unnecessary except in rare instances. It’s always wrong when you write “said that”, but it’s also almost always wrong when “that” follows a verb. Essentially, if the “that” can be eliminated and the sentence still make sense, it needs to be deleted. It’s an unnecessary word that became so overused we think it’s necessary. I blame English teachers who were Education majors rather than English majors, but it’s also because we hear and read non-teachers use it all the time, so we assume it’s correct. The only time when “that” is absolutely necessary is when a reporting verb precedes a prepositional phrase. Example – “We complained to the committee that they had not kept us informed.” But even in that example — you don’t need it in dialogue and it creates an interesting way for some (not all) characters to speak. I use it for Trevor in “What If Wasn’t” series because his father’s a journalist and Trevor is a breezy talker. It makes his dialogue more distinctive.

Essentially, the use (or non-use) of “that” is probably the writing item I mull the most. Most people don’t care. I skip over it blithely when I’m reading other people’s books, but when I am editing my books, my training lurks in the back of my head reminding me this is almost entirely an unnecessary word.

I don’t necessarily struggle with my decision to eliminate the word when it isn’t necessary, but I do consider whether it is necessary on rare occasion. My husband gets to decide sometimes. “Does this sentence make sense?” and I read it aloud to him. If he says “yes”, I don’t add the “that”. If he hesitates, I reread it with the “that” and he gets to contribute to my writing. But over the years, he’s learned to listen critically and now occasionally says “It’ll work either way.” The “that” doesn’t survive uncertainty.

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are those phrases following quotes telling us who is speaking. Dialogue tags frequently slow down the narrative. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary. You’ve got three or more characters talking and readers would struggle to track the conversation without the dialogue tags. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary or can be substituted with an action sentence.

“Look at that beautiful sunrise,” Justine said.

Justine is one of four characters in a scene in the serialized novel I’m writing for Kindle Vella. Readers definitely want to know who is speaking, but is the tag necessary? No, not in this example. The line actually reads —

“Look at that beautiful sunrise!” Justine pointed toward the watercolor painting lightening the periwinkle sky.

Way more immersive description than “Justine said.” It’s more words, but I’m writing novels not newspaper articles, so word count is not as important as drawing the reader into the narrative. The description puts the reader right in the scene. The dialogue tag is eliminated as well, which is a bonus.


Beta readers and editors alike sometimes insist “said” is the only acceptable reporting verb in a dialogue tag. I disagree. Yes, it’s unobtrusive, but it’s also boring and overused. It adds nothing to the description. You wouldn’t use it, except you need a dialogue tag and “said” is an easy choice. Drawing from my journalism background (where we were writing under strict word limitations and deadlines), I don’t use “said” often. My Newswriting professors used to use my reporting verbs as examples for the class. My 101 professor was a former New York Post reporter who previously taught at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and my 401 professor was a former reporter and editor for the New Orleans Picayune. They HATED when students used “said” because they believed it was the Apache White of reporting verbs. “You only have 350 words to engage the reader. Don’t throw one away on a plain vanilla word.”

I have the same view of the word “asked”. If it is necessary to tag a question in dialogue, my tag is congruent with the use of a question. It probably won’t be “asked” because it falls into Apache White territory. “Inquired”, “queried”, “requested”. Despite all the sage advice of writing gurus today, I consider “said” and “asked” to be lazy writing if I am the one using it.


“Look at that beautiful sunrise,” Justine gasped.

The alternative reporting verb “gasped” tells readers who is speak, but it also tells them something about how Justine spoke without putting an adverb in the mix.

“Look at that beautiful sunrise,” Justine said excitedly.

Abverbs are frowned on as unnecessary these days — although I think they’re a condiment that makes all the difference in compelling writing. While I’m glad we moved away from the “purple prose” era of writing, I think we might overcorrect in chasing down bugaboos. Still, I think “gasped” is a better substitute than “said excitedly”. The first is “show”, the second is “tell.” Enough said.

It’s okay to experiment with language as we write, to search for what will work best for our writing, to find techniques to hold ours apart from the writing of other authors. Variety is the spice of life. It’s also the condiment of novel-writing.

Announcing Serialized Novel

Watch for Words I Wish I’d Said sometime this summer. It’s a romance set in Hawaii, and the couple has enough problems to keep readers guessing between weekly episodes for at least half-a-year. I previously struggled to write romance, but somehow the serialized method broke my writer’s block in that genre. I might tackle mystery in that method next.

I’ve already posted some of the series episodes and written a good bit of future episodes and am now waiting on Kindle’s unannounced launch date for their new program, supposedly around the end of July.

Posted June 28, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Go Went Gone … Urggg!   5 comments

What are your top five writing mistakes? Either mistakes you make or mistakes that make you cringe when you see them in print?


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Good, Better, Best … Never Let It Rest

Journalists are, supposedly, terrible spellers, but I came to the reporting game with good spelling and strong grammar. My training just enhanced that and make me more sensitive to common errors. That doesn’t mean I never make a mistake. It means I rarely let other people see my mistakes — I catch them in the editing process. I know how to make good writing into better writing, always striving for the best.

Grammarly asked users what their most frustrating grammar errors were and they said

  • Incorrect verb forms
  • Subject-verb disagreements
  • Run-on sentences
  • Comma splices
  • Pronoun antecedent disagreements

Watch for the other three fingers

I certainly have made these mistakes myself, but they do drive me crazy when I see them in other people’s writing — particularly if it’s already been published. Really, people, at least get a couple of beta readers to go over it before you put it on Amazon. By “people”, I mean me and anyone else who has made these mistakes.

Incorrect Verb Form

Irregular verb forms can be challenging because so often we make these errors while speaking and don’t even find them odd when we see them in writing. I was taught to take a pause and remember my credibility as a writer is hanging in a free-fire zone if I get this wrong. Here are the most common verb conjugation mistakes:

Is it “seen” or “saw”? Sometimes you can hear you’re wrong when you read it aloud.

“I seen the movie last week”

Or is it?

“I saw the movie last week”

You can hear the error easily.

But is it?

“I been there” or “I have been there.?”

Most people say “I been there”, but, when writing, it’s really “I have (in the past) been there.” That one really trips some people up and I read it in their books and not just in dialogue, where it is acceptable. Take a pause, folks, and think about it. Unless you’re writing narrative in a regional dialect, it pays to question the words that come out of your mouth and whether they belong on the page.

Subject-verb disagreement

In Spanish and American Sign Language (my other two languages) the subject of the sentence must correctly align with the verb conjugation for both number and gender. I especially found Spanish to be challenging because of this. Less so ASL probably because it’s a visual-gestural language.

In English, compound subjects follow a simple rule. They’re plural. “Mark and Jane” are two subjects (compound). “They” are compound. “We” are compound. So much easier. But then you run across irregular verbs. Oh, those can be so frustrating.

Consider “forces of nature.” Nature is one subject … right? So the verb would be “is”, right? But, no, it’s plural subjects. It’s the forces of nature. Nature itself may be one thing, but it has multiple forces.

“The forces of nature are knocking the heck out of deck furniture.”

I corrected a supervisor one time over “rights of way”. He was planning to send this letter somewhere important, where his credibility was at stake and I was trying to save his career. Trust me, I have that correct. It is definitely “rights of way” (plural). But he spent a good half-hour arguing with me that it’s just one “right of way”. Yes, we were talking about just one “rights of way” in front of a business, but it’s still plural, not singular. We finally looked it up in two grammar books and on the Internet and I won the debate. He’s an engineer. I wouldn’t argue with him about how to build a road, but he wanted to argue with a professional writer about grammar. It was hilarious.

Grammarly suggests you memorize irregular verbs, but you can usually reason them out — that’s how I do them, though I also still pull out my 30-year-old Associate Press Style Guide when I get stumped.

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and that can stand alone as a sentence) that are not connected with correct punctuation. 

Though there are different kinds of run-on sentence errors, most often writers neglect to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).

“I enjoy writing immensely but my deadline is looming I am starting to feel overwhelmed.”

It’s rare for me to include a run-on sentence even in a draft because I am a fan of Hemingway and trained as a journalist. Journalists HATE commas, so are told whenever we feel like putting one in a sentence, we should ask ourselves if we couldn’t use a period instead. If you can use a period instead of a comma, you should use the period. See, you don’t even have to memorize a rule for that, but there is a rule.

Each independent clause must be set apart from other independent clauses with punctuation or a comma and conjunction. Punctuation marks that are ideal for marking complete sentences are periods (full-stops), semicolons, and em dashes. Got it! Use it! Stop frustrating me!

Comma splices

Comma splices and run-on sentences are kissing cousins. Comma splices are really run-on sentences.

“He was very hungry, he ate a whole pizza.”

When a writer joins two independent sentences with a comma instead of separating them with a period or a conjunction, that’s a comma splice and it makes my head pound. Cut it out!

Pronoun-antecedent disagreement

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because he was in her way.”

When you use the pronouns “him” or “her”, readers need to know to whom those pronouns refer. Otherwise, they get confused.

Who is the second “he” in the above sentence — John or someone else? If the reader has to look back at the last sentence to be sure, you’ve not done your job as a writer correctly.

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because Tim was in Helga’s way.”

But what about me?

The one that drives me crazy in my own writing is actually a typo. Sometimes, my fingers get to moving so fast, they write a different word than the one I am thinking — “form” instead of “from”, “dog” instead of “god”, “left” instead of “felt”, and “who” instead of “how” — or the reverse of those. All the grammar-check programs in the world won’t catch them and I think it’s sometimes unavoidable. It happens so often when I’m “in the zone” and I just don’t notice it. I usually catch it when I have Word read the text aloud, but it’s frustrating because it’s so simple and yet so-really-hard to catch and correct. You have to catch an error before you can correct it.

Chinese Water Torture   12 comments

What are your pet peeves when it comes to grammar and spelling?


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It’s the Little Things

Oh, yes, it’s that little drip-drip-drip that drives us crazy in grammar as much as in our bedroom when we’re trying to sleep.

There’s a gap in the gutters of our house where the chimney climbs the outside wall and it allows a small section of roof where moisture can roll from a higher roof onto the garage, where it strikes the flashing for the chimney. This is just the other side of our bedroom wall from our pillows.

This time of year (or if it’s raining), it’s a drip-drip-drip-drip water feature that isn’t unpleasant. It’s like sleeping next to a small waterfall. But we had a cold night and the drips slowed to drip … drip … drip … urgggh. You know what I mean. Chinese Water Torture.

Grammar can be like that too. There are things that just drive me crazy, but they’re usually small and repeated over and over and over and over ….

Alright Isn’t

“All right.” That’s the only correct way to write that term in formal English — that includes in a novel — unless you’re writing an accent. It’s not “alright”. It could be “a’ight” or “allight” if you’re writing that accent, but if you’re not trying to recreate a eubonics or redneck accent in your novel, use “all right.” Please.

Pause and Think

Overuse of the word “that”. It’s a journalism thing. Back in the day, newspapers had to set type by hand and paper and ink weren’t cheap, so there were words we wanted to eliminate as unnecessary. “That” is just such a word. Often the use of “that” is perfectly grammatical, but if you’re following a principle of omitting needless words, leave out the “that.”

Cautiously. Although “that” is optional a lot of the time, you can’t assume it’s optional wherever you see it. Sometimes it’s mandatory. And even when it’s optional, it’s sometimes still a good idea to keep it.

So, when I see “that” in someone else’s writing (and most especially when I read my own writing), I circle back to it and ask “it is necessary.” Most common verbs (such as “say”, “think”, “know”, “claim”, “hear”, “believe”) are bridge verbs and don’t need “that” Non-bridge verbs carry extra meaning. An example of the verb “whisper”, which carries descriptive meaning in the verb. It sounds odd to say, “He whispered he wanted another root beer” instead of “He whispered that he wanted another root beer.” Not crashingly bad, but just a little off.

Newspapers often ignore the difference between bridge verbs and non-bridge verbs and delete a “that” after verbs where it would sound better to leave it in. Which also bugs me.

Kinda of Creepy

It’s the little things that usually drive me crazy. My biggest one isn’t actually a grammar thing. It’s a logic thing. My teeth grind when writers write things about people’s eyes “dwelling” on someone, or “being on the floor”, or “turned out the window.”

Uh, no! The character’s eyes need to stay in their head where eyeballs belong. Their gaze can dwell on the pretty girl, drop to the floor or turn out the window. I end up with this word-picture of eyeballs rolling all over the place and it’s not a lovely view. STOP!

There are probably as many examples as there are writers. Let’s see what bugs my fellow writers.

Posted April 27, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Was   Leave a comment

No matter how much time and energy we authors put into querying agents and editors (or conversely learning the ins and outs of self-publishing) it’s all wasted if we don’t have a polished piece of work. One way to make sure your book is the best possible product is to brush up on your nuts-and-bolts writing skills. This also saves money in editing fees.

Image result for image of past perfect tense

I’m pretty sure everyone has been in a critique group, had a beta reader, or listened to a creative writing workshop where somebody lectured you about avoiding the word “was.” We are routinely told to eliminate all forms of the verb “to be” from our prose.

Well-meaning mentors tell us “was” is “passive,” so we must avoid it at all costs, along with adverbs, run-on sentences, and naming all of your characters the similar names.

These experts were repeating “The Rules” they heard from their own critique groups, beta readers, and workshop leaders when they started writing.

Sometimes “The Rules” are wrong.

This particular rule has good intentions, but shows a lack of understanding of grammar. The verb “to be” has many functions in modern English and some have nothing to do with the passive voice.

I’m old enough that I actually received an education in English grammar, but I think it may not be a major focus in most schoolrooms because I find a lot of writers have not been taght the basics.

Past tenses in English

  • Simple Past
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Continuous (or “Progressive”)
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Perfect (or “Pluperfect”)
  • Past Perfect Continuous.

Some of these tenses are created by using various forms of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” They’re called “auxiliary verbs” (sometimes helping verbs) when they are used this way.

Simple past:

I threw up.

Present Perfect:

I have been throwing up since I ate that chicken.

Here an action starts in the past and comes up to the present.

Past Continuous:

I was throwing up when Mrs. Smith arrived to invite me to tea.

A continuous action in the past gets interrupted by the simple past. “Was” is necessary to create this tense with the verb “to throw up.” “Was” in this auxiliary function has nothing to do with the independent meaning of the verb “was” meaning “existed in the past.”

Past Perfect:

I had threw up right before she came to the door.

An action happened in the past BEFORE the past of the story. “Had” is the auxiliary verb that creates this tense. This is different from the stand-alone meaning of the verb “had” meaning “possessed in the past”.

Past Perfect continuous:

I had been throwing up for hours.

An action happened in the past over a period of time until it got interrupted by another action. The verbs “to have” AND “to be” are combined with the primary verb “to throw up” to make this tense.

These tenses have nothing to do with the Passive VOICE

Throwing up was caused by chicken.   In the passive voice, we use forms of “to be” when the object of the verb becomes the subject of the sentence.

Or, as my college English professor would say:

The passive voice is avoided whenever possible by good writers.

Then, just to be confusing, we have the Subjunctive MOOD.  (Sometimes called the “Unreal Conditional” tense.)

If I were smarter, I’d have brought my own lunch.  

It also uses the auxiliary verb “to be”. Are you starting to see what a multi-purpose word “was” is? The word “were” doesn’t put us in the past. It tells us he’s not actually smart.

But what about this?

If I was even smarter, I’d have shot my uncle instead of the bear.

This is incorrect grammar, because the subjunctive uses “were,” not “was.”

So “was” should be eliminated here, right?

If you’re aiming for grammatical prose, absolutely, but if you’re writing fiction, it’s probably just fine. You don’t want all your characters to sound like college professors.

What does this all mean?

Sometimes “was” and “were” are absolutely necessary for meaning and by no means “passive.”

I was just sitting there when the bear mauled me.

This means something different from:

I just sat there when the bear mauled me.

Eliminating “was” changes the meaning from “the bear mauled me with no provocation,” to “I didn’t react when the bear mauled bit me.”

However, your critique group didn’t steer you totally wrong when they told you to be wary of “was.”

This isn’t because the word is always passive, but because it can be part of lazy sentence construction.

Beginning writers tend to write flabby sentences like this:

There was a squirrel sitting on the picnic table and he was eating my peanut butter sandwich. He was looking at me like I was nobody to be scared of, so I decided it was time to get my shotgun.

That can be cleaned up by using simpler verbs:

A squirrel sat on the picnic table eating my peanut butter sandwich. He looked me in the eye without a speck of fear. I went for my shotgun.

That’s easier to read and gives a stronger, clearer image.

Another note on past tenses

Most readers say they prefer reading a book written in the past tense, but writing in the past can be difficult when you decide to do a flashback. Yes, you could just not write flashbacks, but sometimes the story absolutely requires one. That’s when you go into the past perfect tense. But you don’t have to stay there, because it sounds awkward.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he had run into a gang of squirrels who had attacked him with giant acorns.

Actually, you only have to use the past perfect (the “had” construction) once or twice to introduce the flashback, then continue in the simple past and readers will automatically adjust.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he ran into a gang of squirrels who attacked him with giant acorns.

It’s all in the distant past, but we know that without all the extra “hads.”

Sometimes it’s best just to trust your readers.

So, when you’re doing your edits, a search for “was” in your manuscript can help clean up your prose, but we’re not looking to eliminate “was” because “was” is “passive” because that’s a clunky use of grammar. Maybe we’ll look at passive voice in the near future.

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